At the request of the city council, Centralia Police Chief Bob Berg gave a detailed report Tuesday on aggressive panhandling within city limits.
The police department receives consistent complaints about panhandling from citizens, Berg said, especially by the Interstate 5 off-ramps at Mellen Street and Harrison Avenue.
However, Berg said, the police department has never written a ticket for aggressive panhandling.
The city ordinance for aggressive panhandling prohibits someone from interfering with traffic or aggressively begging for money.
“There are no criminal offenses being committed,” Berg said. “It may be unsightly, it may be a bad welcome to Centralia kind of a message, but it is what it is.”
Berg did share stories of other offenses related to panhandling. Police have arrested panhandlers for fighting and indecent exposure but not for the act of panhandling, which is protected under the freedom of speech.
One way to limit panhandling is for people to stop giving them money, Berg said.
“As long as that is being done, you will have people that will make their living that way,” Berg said.
As for enforcement, an officer would have to be present and see aggressive panhandling first-hand in order to write a ticket. Otherwise, the person who reports it would have to appear in court with the summoned panhandler.
Berg said Centralia, unlike larger cities, has sidewalks and space to sit by the freeway exits, which encourages panhandlers.
“This whole thing frustrates me to no end, because that is the first impression of our city,” Councilor Patrick Gallagher said.
The council asked Berg if other ordinances — such as ticketing for obstructing sidewalks — could be enforced to discourage panhandling. The police department could, Berg said, but then at least 30 businesses downtown would violate the obstructing ordinances.
“We can’t pick on the least in our society using the color of law that we would not enforce the same with the best in our society,” Berg said.